MANILA, Philippines — President Benigno Aquino III asked a royal Muslim clan leader in the southern Philippines to order his followers to withdraw as soon as possible from Malaysian land they claim as their own, warning on Tuesday of legal action against them and potential trouble.
Speaking on national television, Aquino told Sultan Jamalul Kiram III that his group of 180 followers led by his younger brother and including up to 30 armed men was risking a violent end to a two-week standoff by insisting on holding out. Kiram’s sultanate has been claiming the land in a coastal village in Lahad Datu district in Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state for nearly a century.
“We have not yet reached the point of no return, but we are fast approaching that point,” Aquino said, calling the action by Kiram’s followers a “foolhardy act” that was bound to fail.
Aquino’s remarks elevated the Sabah territorial issue, which has been a thorn in Philippine-Malaysian relations for decades, to a Philippine national security concern. The crisis erupted at a crucial stage of peace negotiations—brokered by Malaysia—between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.
Kiram’s followers secretly traveled by boat early this month to Lahad Datu, where he said many of their Filipino relatives had resettled for years, to fortify his clan’s claims on Sabah. It is a resource-rich Malaysian region where many mostly Muslim Filipinos have relocated in search of jobs and opportunities and to escape poverty and the decades-long Muslim rebellion in the southern Philippines.
Malaysian authorities, however, regard them as armed intruders and ordered them to immediately leave or face eviction. Malaysian police have surrounded Kiram’s followers in Lahad Datu and gave them until late Tuesday to leave, suggesting they would be forcibly removed.
Aquino said that Kiram and his followers would be investigated, along with possible collaborators, suggesting the incident may have been an act to undermine the Philippine government. He warned Kiram and his followers of possible legal action if they continued to defy orders to withdraw from Lahad Datu.
“If you choose not to cooperate, the full force of the laws of the state will be used to achieve justice for all who have been put in harm’s way,” Aquino said.
Philippine and Malaysian authorities have said that the group’s demands should be addressed through diplomatic channels.
The Philippines notified Malaysia over the weekend that it has deployed a navy ship, which would stay off Lahad Datu while talks to persuade the Filipinos to return home continue. The ship departed Sunday night with an entourage including social workers and medical personnel.